Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 16:42 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 16:42 | SYDNEY

Our sporting and diplomatic cultures


Sam Roggeveen


22 November 2012 11:23

I'm attracted to Nick Bryant's idea of using football as a metaphor for Australian diplomacy, but he's altogether too nice about it. The sports metaphor also reveals some of our limitations*.

In football and in diplomacy, Australians tend to be sticklers for the rules. We can't abide cheating or 'diving', because we believe, rightly, that the rules are all that separate us from barbarism and the state of nature (Australian foreign ministers and diplomats love talking about a 'rules-based order'). But in other cultures, those rules represent oppression and subjugation, and getting around them is seen as a mark of defiance.

The distaste for diving also hints at the links between our military and sporting cultures. In each, cowardice is the greatest sin and we elevate those who display physical bravery, stoicism and endurance (just look at the statuette on the NRL premiership trophy, which BTW bears more than a passing resemblance to this famous photo of wounded diggers on the Kokoda Trail).

We also tend to honour teamwork, a collectivist virtue, and with exceptions for lovable and unthreatening rogues like Shane Warne, our sporting heroes are conformists. We are suspicious of individualists who put themselves above the team, and there is no place for revolutionaries. It's hard to imagine an iconoclast like Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff flourishing in the Australian sporting culture, just as a larger-than-life diplomat like Richard Holbrooke would be stifled by our bureaucratic culture.

We have a deep appreciation for sporting skill, but don't care much for cunning or guile. Victories tend to be put down to 'team spirit' or 'belief'. When we lose, we're apt to think it's because we lack those things. But that's wrong, and in football as well as diplomacy, our mindset will need to adapt. It's not self-belief or courage or fitness that wins football tournaments, but tactical innovation or, as football writer Simon Kuper puts it, 'geometry and positioning and intelligence.' We'll need those qualities on the park and around the negotiating table.

* Intro changed because the original was a too self-loathing and a bit misleading about what follows.